Gut instincts allow people to make routine decisions without thinking too hard

(Shane Harrison)
  Enlarge Photo    
Monday, November 1, 2010; 4:13 PM

This morning alone, I must have made a million decisions: Should I grab the wailing baby from his crib, even though it's still dark outside, or let him cry it out? What's for breakfast? Do I have time to squeeze in a shower? Should I try to fit in a workout today? Do the boys need coats? Do I have enough gas to make it to Georgetown and back? Should I turn left on to Volta Street to try to avoid running into the trash truck that I see on O Street, or not? And that's all before my first cup of coffee.

If I actually stopped to think about every last one of these choices, it would probably take me hours, if not days, to get out the door.

Luckily, I don't have to, thanks hundreds of simple rules, mental shortcuts and biases that humans have developed over time, some of which we learn by experience but many of which are now indelibly stamped into our neurons, allowing us to make split-second, automatic choices, most of the time. These gut instincts - which allow us to act instantaneously rather than stand paralyzed by the multitude of aforementioned decisions we have to make every day - are what psychologists call heuristics.

For example, there is the well-known and widely documented "familiarity heuristic," which tells us that anything recognizable tends to be thought of as safe and good, and is supported by research showing that our brains process familiar and unfamiliar situations and problems differently. Hence, I almost always continue driving straight on 35th Street every morning, even though taking a turn or two could probably save me a few minutes. And I instinctively grab the same brand of tomato sauce at the market, despite the dozens of options lining the shelves.

Sometimes going with your gut makes sense - in the case of an emergency room doctor, say, who has to quickly diagnose an ailment he's seen countless times before. But a new book has forced me to reconsider all my snap judgments and to wonder if perhaps I should take more time to consider my choices, particularly when it comes to important matters such as health, relationships and money.

"We all live these heuristically driven lives. We have these automatic processes in our minds that have been there for a long time and are really difficult to dislodge - and they are important and serve lot of really good purposes, but when misapplied to social judgments and the modern world, they can lead to perilous decisions," says Wray Herbert, author of "On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind's Hard-Wired Habits." He speculates that these cognitive shortcuts helped our species survive but that many have lingered in our brains long past the point of usefulness. Heuristics "are understandable, from a scientific point of view, but that doesn't mean they're right."

Unfortunately, retraining your mind to make better decisions is easier said than done. But Herbert's theory is that the more we understand these ingrained impulses and recognize how nuanced and pervasive they can be, the better we'll be able to consider important choices. "Just that knowledge will give you the tools to think about your thinking - to say, 'I'm making a snap judgment here when I should be a little more deliberative and think it over,' " he explains.

I couldn't help but notice that many of the 20 heuristics detailed in "On Second Thought" can relate to health. For example, take the familiarity bias a step further and you get the "fluency heuristic," which tells us that if something is easy to process, then we tend to prefer it over more complicated options.

In a University of Michigan study cited by Herbert in his book, people were more open to the idea of working out and more likely to do it when the directions for an exercise routine were written in a basic typeface as opposed to a more convoluted script. "Apparently the [subjects'] brains mistook the ease of simply reading about exercise for ease of actually doing the sit-ups and bench presses," writes Herbert, who surmises that for the group with a more confusing font, "the reading alone tired them out."

What that means, says Herbert, director of science communication for the Association for Psychological Science, a national organization based in Washington, is that "people on the front lines of getting us through this national health and obesity crisis . . . have to overcome some really, really deeply wired habits of mind."

For example, he cites what he terms the "visionary heuristic," which he theorizes evolved from a time when hunter-gatherers had to conserve energy and which may influence how we view physical obstacles such as height, slope and size. A recent University of Virginia study suggested that people consistently perceive hills as steeper than they are, and steeper still if they are weighed down by a pack. So, he suggests, our brains conclude: Why begin the climb at all?

"Most exercise is in one form or another a variation on climbing hills," he writes. "So if we're deep-wired to conserve energy, and specifically to avoid all but essential forms of work, that means there is a significant psychological disincentive to move at all, much less to hop on the StairMaster and climb for half an hour."

Of course, the science of heuristics isn't always so neat and tidy: There's a lot of overlap and interaction between these cognitive rules of thumb, and people may process them differently. However, Herbert recommends at least one prescription for good decision-making that can help everyone: Carefully consider the timing of your most important choices.

"Under any kind of stress, the brain will default to our heuristic mind, because it's a muscle that consumes glucose, and if that's depleted or overtaxed, well, it's much easier to default to automatic processes," he explains. "So never make an important life decision when you're tired or hungry, or if you have too many other things to do!"

Which means that it's probably okay for me to default to my more primitive mind when making early-morning driving decisions but that I should definitely deliberate more carefully over the daily "Do I really need to work out today?" choice.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company